When does unemployed mean unemployable?

Jan 23, 2011

With three college degrees, including an MBA, a resume boasting volunteer work and a 25-year stint at one company, Linda Keller is devastated by what potential employers see in her.

"She's lazy. She's not doing anything. Her skills are out of date. She's out of touch with reality," Keller rattles off. "That's what hiring people think."

That's because Keller, 53, has one strike against her that's hard to overcome in today's ultra-competitive job market: She's unemployed -- and has been for 19 months.

She's among 4.4 million people nationwide who have been out of work for a year or more. The group makes up more than 40 percent of the total unemployed, the highest percentage since World War II.

Keller and others in that category say there is a stigma that long-term jobless people have been sitting around and don't really want to work. There is the perception that they won't take a lower-paying job -- and if they do, they will bolt as soon as they find a higher-paying one.

On top of that, some companies -- including PMG Indiana, Sony Ericsson and retailers nationwide -- have explicitly barred the unemployed or long-term unemployed from certain job openings, outright telling them in job ads that they need not apply.

The phenomenon poses a vicious cycle of unemployed people wanting work but not being able to get it because they are unemployed, human-resource experts say.

"You could compare it to when people are buying homes," said Pete Morse, a partner in Barnes & Thornburg's labor department. "A home that's been on the market a period of time, people are going to look at it and say, 'Hey. There must be something undesirable about this house.' "

That's why the long-term unemployed have to work extra hard to land a job.

Since being laid off from Firestone in May 2009, Keller has increasingly packed her schedule, going to countless job interviews and networking events.

On Thursday, her schedule included a job interview at 8 a.m., a networking luncheon in Fishers, a stop home to check e-mails and search job prospects, and then a stop at a 4:30 p.m. networking event in Carmel.

"Finding a job is a full-time job," said Keller, a married mother of two who lives in Carmel. "It's harder, in fact, with all these misconceptions."

From an employer's standpoint, however, there could be legitimate reasons for not hiring the unemployed, Morse said.

"For any particular position in this dour economy, there are thousands of applicants," he said. "People are looking for a way to narrow the field. They have pressure to put the best team on the field."

On top of employers' perceptions of unemployed workers, many long-term jobless applicants lose self-confidence and hurt themselves by walking into an interview already beaten, said Karl Ahlrichs, a human-relations consultant at Gregory & Appel in Indianapolis.

"There can be a lot of comfort in playing the victim," he said. "But it's quickly picked up by the employer that that might carry through if you get hired."

On the other hand, if the candidates go in and point out the positives of long-term unemployment, it can work to their advantage.

"The people that are currently working are pretty burned out. They have been overtasked and undermotivated and scared for a long time, and their reserves are probably pretty far down," Ahlrichs said. "Somebody coming off the bench will be fresher."

Sitting on the bench, however, hasn't proved to be a positive for Henri Shenter. Since losing his job in construction sales 15 months ago, Shenter has been turned down for jobs nearly 50 times.

He's looking for another sales job and, at 35, has 15 years' experience, but as soon as they see his last date of employment, it's over, he said.

"They throw it in the trash," the Greenwood resident said. "There is absolute discrimination going on."

Whether that discrimination is legal is up for debate.

"An employer that discriminates against the unemployed risks legal action," said Michael Blickman, a partner in the labor and employment group at Ice Miller, adding he is unaware of any legal precedent.

The candidate could argue that filing for unemployment is a statutory right and that an employer's policy not to hire the unemployed unjustly interferes with that right.

Morse disagrees, arguing that the unemployed are not among the categories protected by discrimination laws.

"The mere fact of you being unemployed for a period of time is not a protected characteristic," he said. Categories such as age, race and gender are.

Still, a company such as PMG Indiana that recently ran an ad for a production assistant that read: "Must have worked in the previous 12 months" walks a fine line, Blickman said.

"An employer should ensure that it has a solid business justification if it adopts that kind of policy or practice," he said. "The employer also risks the loss of good will among its own employees, customers and the public with this kind of policy."

PMG did not return phone calls from The Indianapolis Star.

But the company is far from alone in wanting workers who already are gainfully employed, said Patrice Waidner, board chairwoman of the Business & Professional Exchange, a networking organization that helps unemployed professionals.

"Companies are saying, 'I will take the person who was just working or is currently working,' " she said. "It is extremely difficult to get back into the job market."